Everyone Fights, No One Quits: Starship Troopers Re-Visited

I must admit, I feel a bit ashamed for not bringing this up a couple months ago when it WAS the 20th anniversary of Paul Verhoeven’s live-action “adaptation” of Starship Troopers.  I remember when my dad took my brother and I to go see the film back in 1997.  I remember being totally enthralled by what I had seen.  Guns, bugs, blood and gore and gigantic space-ships.  What more could you want?  It was one of the most spectacular movies that I had seen that year.  I was 15 years old at the time, so I wasn’t keenly aware of the subtext of what I was seeing and I certainly wasn’t entirely aware of the book that the film was LOOSELY based on.  Even so, the movie had grabbed my attention and over the 2 decades since, Starship Troopers has become one of my favorite science fiction movies of all-time.  I personally put it up there with Star Wars and Alien.  I bring this up because I want to re-visit a film that’s known to be controversial due to its level of violence and sexuality.  This is not a new review.  I gave the film a 9/10 if you ignore the fact that it’s not a great adaptation.  I have read the book.  Many times since I saw the film, and I can tell you the two are nothing alike.  But that does not make the film bad or dumb.  Not remotely.

Paul Verhoeven, when he makes a film, has a purpose to everything that he does.  One could call the man a “mad genius.”  I mean that in the most respectable way, of course.  Most of the man’s films are controversial to a certain degree.  They’ve always pissed people off and Mr. Verhoeven knew it.  But that didn’t stop him from making the movies that he wanted to make.  Whether it’s Total Recall, RoboCop, or Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven always gives his movies an edge.  Yet, at the same time he manages to keep his movies from taking themselves far too seriously.  Starship Troopers is no different.  The level of violence in Verhoeven’s films are so over the top that they are ridiculous.  What most people don’t realize is that was EXACTLY the point.  Most folks who have read Robert Heinlein’s novel before the movie came out tend to have a rather negative view of the film.  I’m not necessarily saying that they’re wrong, but I think that they might be missing the point.  I think a lot of people did 20 years ago.  Starship Troopers has a great deal of subversive ideas that are cleverly disguised as over-the-top visuals.  It’s not just the visuals, though.  It’s also in the script and in the dialogue.

There are a couple of scenes that I noticed over the course of watching the film again that stood out to me.  Take the shower scene for example.  Most people would accuse the film of using this scene just to show some naked dudes and ladies for the hell of it.  However, this scene is significant for a number of reasons.  The first thing you will notice is probably the most obvious: Men and women showering together during training.  Here’s the thing.  You’ve got men and women training for combat in the same platoon and same battalion.  Basically, the film’s military is treating men and women as equals.  The other thing I would ask you to pay attention to during this scene is the dialogue.  You hear one character wanting to have children, but she needs a license and it’s easier to get that license through serving in the military.  Another character wants to be a writer, but he has to go through the military to do so.  Those moments of dialogue highlight what kind of government that these people are living under.  Population control and propaganda?  Seems pretty heavy-handed to me and these people are okay with it.  Another character wants to become a politician, but serving is the only way.

The government in the film as well as the book is set up in such a way that only a certain class of people can vote:  The people that serve in the military.  These people are Citizens while civilians are not.  It’s a military-style dictatorship, essentially.  You know what they say:  “The devil’s in the details.”  You look at not only some of the visuals throughout the film, but take a look at the sets and costumes as well.  The officer uniforms are very Nazi-like in terms of design.  When the Sky Marshalls speak, they stand above everyone else in the room.  Look at the way the camera is used in those scenes.  It’s pointed up and towards the Sky Marshall when they do close-ups.  Does that remind you of somebody?  There are a lot of details that seem “in your face,” but when you start peeling back the layers, you begin to see and understand why Paul Verhoeven chose to make the movie the way he did.  There are a lot of moments that seem stupid, but are actually really clever if you’re willing to read between the lines.

Even if you don’t bother to dig beneath the visuals to find the subtext of what Paul Verhoeven was going for, Starship Troopers remains a very entertaining action flick.  20 years later, a lot of the visual effects and CGI still hold up very, very well.  The sequence with the “tanker” bug is one of the biggest highlights of the film.  This is a movie that perfectly melded practical effects with CGI.  The space sequences are still among the best that I’ve ever seen since Return of the Jedi.  They are that good.  The battle at Whiskey Outpost on Planet P is one of the most epic battle sequences put to screen in the late 90’s.  Again, this is where the CGI is very strong.  The music by Basil Poledouris still gets your blood pumping.  The landing on Klendathu is one of the most striking sequences I’ve ever seen.

This would all be for nothing if the cast and crew weren’t up for the task.  Thankfully, everybody does a fantastic job.  Starship Troopers is Casper Van Dien’s breakout role, and I thought he was absolutely fantastic.  His character of Johnny Rico goes from a fresh-faced high school graduate to a battle-hardened combat soldier by the end of the film and you can see the transformation.  The supporting cast was extraordinary as well.  This isn’t the first time Michael Ironside appeared in a Paul Verhoeven film.  Mr. Ironside also starred in Total Recall as a character named Richter.  Michael Ironside is always fun to watch.  He chews the scenery better than almost anybody.  I say almost, because Clancy Brown is also in the movie as Drill Instructor Zim.  His turn as the drill instructor is probably one of my favorite roles that he’s ever been in, aside from being the main villain in Highlander.  Dina Meyer, who plays Dizzy, has had a pretty strong career since Starship Troopers.  I think her character of Dizzy is a better match for Johnny Rico than Denise Richards’ Carmen.  There’s more legitimate chemistry between Rico and Dizzy than there is between Rico and Carmen.  I think that’s just the way the characters were written.

Going back to view the film has been an absolute blast.  I loved it when I was 15, but I love it even more as an adult.  It’s one of those movies that sticks with me.  A lot of people still don’t like the movie, but I’m guessing that these folks read the book before seeing the movie.  I’m not going to say that they are wrong for not liking it.  The movie was not what they were expecting.  I get it, I really do.  I’ve read the book, but only after seeing the movie, so both have a special place in my heart.

It would be remiss of me to not bring up the sequels to Starship Troopers, despite the fact that I would rather not.  The first sequel: Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation would be released direct to video in 2004.  This was Phil Tippett’s first feature film as a director.  Phil Tippett is a visual effects wizard known for a lot of great films including Willow and Star Wars.  Let’s just say, that he hasn’t really directed a whole lot since Hero of the Federation.  There’s a reason for that.  This movie sucks.  While the original film was made for a hundred million dollars, this little sebaceous cyst of a film managed only a paltry 7 million.  Let me tell you, it is very clear that no real time was spent trying to make this movie good.  The visual effects are generally not good, and the guns don’t even fire blanks.  Nope, they couldn’t even afford blanks.  Instead, they used blinking lights on the end of the rifles.  It is no surprise to me that Casper Van Dien didn’t come back for this one.  It’s horrendous on so many levels.  The acting is atrocious, the story is little more than a horror movie and all the subtext and political satire that made the first movie so unique is absent.  Skip this crap.

Of the two live-action sequels, Starship Troopers 3: Marauder is the better one.  It’s better not only because Casper Van Dien returns, but so does the political satire.  However, the satire strikes me as very heavy-handed and is not handled as well as Paul Verhoeven did in the first movie.  Still, film number 3 manages to not actually piss me off like the second film did.  While the original film was Casper’s breakout role, it’s very clear that Casper really likes this character and is very comfortable in the role, despite how cheesy the movie gets.  In fact, I think Casper Van Dien kinda rolls with it and that makes it kind of fun.  Does that make it a good movie?  No.  The film suffers from an anorexic budget which gives us some really poor CGI and some lame effects in certain parts.  Overall, I personally think Starship Troopers 3 is worth a look.

Starship Troopers: Invasion is the first film in the franchise to go fully CGI.  Does it actually work?  Yes, in a lot of ways, I think it does.  This film properly features the power suits that were featured so prominently in Robert A. Heinlein’s novel, but conspicuously absent during the first two live-action films.  The suits in the third film don’t really qualify in my opinion.  While the film is visually spectacular, it kind of misses the mark a bit as far as being a Starship Troopers film goes.  For one, the subtle jabs and political satire from the original film are missing entirely.  Two:  The main characters of Johnny Rico, Carmen Ibanez, and Carl Jenkins are not voiced by their original actors, and it is painfully obvious that the new voices just don’t cut it.  This one is a bit of a mixed bag for me.  I’d still say check it out, because it’s still fun to watch.

 

Traitor of Mars is the kind of film where you wonder whether or not you want to continue investing your time into the franchise.  Don’t get me wrong; it’s awesome to have Casper Van Dien play Johnny Rico again.  He’s made that role his own and I can’t really imagine anyone else playing that role.  Sadly, the film is dragged down by some questionable writing and some very irritating side-characters.  Some of these characters are so irritating that you just want them to die.  Bringing the character of Dizzy back leads to one of the creepiest moments in the entire franchise and not in a good way.  Ultimately, it doesn’t really have a whole lot to say, and that’s unfortunate.  Stay for Casper Van Dien’s performance and the action, but nothing else.

In conclusion, Starship Troopers is a film that I can watch over and over again, not get bored, and pick something new up each time I watch it.  It’s a film that has picked up a cult following after it’s release back in 1997.  It stands as one of the most visually spectacular and engaging science fiction films of that decade.  As far as the sequels go, I wouldn’t blame anybody for skipping them.  They really don’t hold a candle to the original film.  Now, there’s been talk about a reboot of the franchise going around for a couple of years now, but it’s hard to say whether or not it’s gaining any traction.  At the end of the day, it’s Paul Verhoeven’s original Starship Troopers that’s worth watching.  It’s an incredible film in so many different ways.  It’s the one that deserves to be seen and believed.

 

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